An emperor reveals his guts

Society & Culture

Xuanye (1654–1722), better known as the Kangxi Emperor, is widely considered one of imperial China’s most successful rulers. But in a valedictory speech given five years before his death, he revealed his fears and vulnerabilities with a candor that seems almost impossible for the politicians who lead the world today.

This Week in China’s History: December 23, 1717

“Be kind to men from afar and keep the able ones near, nourish the people, think of the profit of all as being the real profit.”

Words this calm and considered — wise, dare I say? — coming from the ruler of a powerful nation are very much not of our present moment. We live in an age of bluster and boasting from our leaders, when norms of decorum and standards of decency are too often ignored, and each day’s statements are more outrageous than the last. As 2020 — a Gengzi (Metal Rat) year of bad fortune if ever there was one — comes to a close, we look back to a leader who, though a monarch, projected an image of calm and thoughtfulness, even vulnerability.

The Kangxi Emperor was the second Qing emperor to rule from Beijing. He ascended the throne in 1661 as a young boy and took power from his regent while still a teenager. His reign spanned six decades, the longest of any ruler in Chinese dynastic history. (Bearing in mind that while the Qing was part of Chinese dynastic history, the dynasty, and its ruler, was Manchu, a term coined only a few years before the start of the Kangxi reign.) He is considered one of the greatest of China’s emperors. Yet his rule was not without flaw, as is natural for any reign covering so much time and space.

(And a word about names: “Kangxi” is an adjective, describing the monarch’s reign. In earlier dynasties, emperors could have more than one reign period during their time on the throne, but in the Ming and Qing, each emperor presided over only one reign: He was the emperor of the Kangxi reign, or the Kangxi Emperor. Kangxi was not his given name — it was not technically a name at all — but for convenience, I will sometimes use it that way, though sticklers are right to object.)

Kangxi took the throne intent on setting his young empire in order. He had consolidated Qing rule over China and expanded the empire’s borders. He had impressed Jesuit priests with his erudition, and Mongol generals with his tactics and strategy. He had set about reorganizing rural administration, a bugbear that had undone the preceding Ming dynasty. He had quickly identified an heir, avoiding the instability that had preceded his own reign.

However, as the 17th century turned to the 18th (not that this was a meaningful concept for Qing monarchs) and Kangxi’s priorities turned to his legacy, the bloom was off the rose. The bloody and expensive conquest of the border regions — Xinjiang, Tibet, Mongolia — proved more challenging than Kangxi had imagined, foreshadowing the problems that the Qing legacy states would have imposing their will on these areas. His son and chosen heir, Yingren, was embroiled in scandal and then implicated in a plot to assassinate his father. After decades of exchange, including an edict of toleration for Christianity in 1692, Kangxi’s relationship to the Catholic church had come undone. Rome condemned Chinese rites, and Kangxi banned Christian missions. And rural tax reform had been a disaster.

Chastened, Kangxi publicly confronted his mortality in a way that rulers rarely do. On December 23, 1717, he assembled his sons (there were more than 20) and dozens of top government officials for what became known as a valedictory edict, recorded in the Qing Veritable Records and translated by Jonathan Spence in his classic Emperor of China.

The emperor reflected at length on his personal accomplishments and shortcomings, on the historical precedents that came before him, on the ancient model of the emperor, and about the demands of ruling an empire. There was no bombast. His reflections on his time on the throne are measured, tinged with melancholy. “I’ve never let people talk on about supernatural influences of the kind that have been recorded in the Histories… Those are just empty words, and I don’t presume so far. I just go on each day in an ordinary way, and concentrate on ruling properly.”

Which is not to say that the emperor was incapable of self-congratulation, and even bending the truth. “I was good at using troops and confronting the enemy,” he wrote of his handling of Wu Sangui’s Three-Feudatories Rebellion, “but I have never recklessly killed a single person.” In the context of his dozens of military campaigns, such protestations sound defensive.

His six decades on the throne had left him depleted. “I am querulous and forgetful, and terrified of muddling right with wrong, and leaving my work in chaos,” he laments. “I exhaust my mind for the country and fragment my spirits for the world. When your wits aren’t guarding your body, your heart has no nourishment, your eyes can’t tell far from near nor ears distinguish true from false, and you eat little and have a lot to do — how can you last long?”

“Death and life are ordinary phenomena — I’ve never avoided talking about them.” The emperor confronted his mortality with clear eyes, but not without worry: “If everything finally goes awry, won’t the hard work of the last 57 years indeed be wasted?”

“I have enjoyed the veneration of my country and the riches of the world; there is no object I do not have, nothing I have not experienced,” he wrote. “But now that I have reached old age,” he continued, “all riches [are] mud and sand. If I can die without there being an outbreak of trouble, my desires will be fulfilled.”

“I’ve revealed my entrails and shown my guts,” the emperor concluded. “There’s nothing left within me to reveal. I will say no more.”

Kangxi’s valedictory is a brief eight pages in an English translation, but it is a powerful meditation on mortality and power, as well as poignant in our present moment of reflection and transition. Yet also powerful is the fate of Kangxi’s words, which was not as he wished.

The Kangxi Emperor died on December 20, 1722, a little more than five years after he assembled his intimates to share these innermost reflections. After his death, a “final valedictory” was made public. Edited by bureaucrats and politicians, the official version lacks the detail and vulnerability of the original. Whereas Kangxi himself had mused about his frailty and mortality, invited criticism, and expressed regrets, the final draft has none of that, opting for boilerplate and convention. As Spence observes, “[Kangxi] had originally presented himself as a man in pain and a man with doubts.” In the official draft, though, Kangxi “emerges only as a shadow, his platitudes enshrined and his forcefulness and anger and honesty and pain all — alike — removed.”

Spence speculates that the editors of the final edict were concerned with “preserving the dignity of the imperial image.” They may also have been angling to ensure a smooth transition. But in any case, as this year — what a year — comes to an end and questions of leadership and legacy abound, it seems that the words of a Manchu ruler echoing from 300 years ago may offer us guidance and comparison.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.